The Etrog

By Philologos

Published October 06, 2006, issue of October 06, 2006.
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The etrog or citron, or esrog, as it is called in Yiddish and Ashkenazic Hebrew, is a curious fruit. Historically the earliest of the citrus fruits to be introduced into the Mediterranean and into Southern Europe from the East, it is also the least edible, the only way to make a food of it being to candy its peels after first immersing them in brine for a prolonged period. And yet, for a few days a year, before the holiday of Sukkot that we are now celebrating, it is — provided it meets the rigorous specifications of Jewish law — the most expensive fruit on earth, perfect specimens of which have been known to go for hundreds of dollars. A few days later, the holiday over, it’s worth practically nothing again.

It also grows on an annoyingly thorny tree. (I should know, because I have two of them in my garden.) Unlike the closely related lemon and orange, which get thorny only when they send up water shoots, and like the equally closely related lime, the citron tree is full of little wooden daggers. Its pickers need to beware of its fruit, no less than do its overcharged buyers.

But to get down to linguistics, is there any significance to the fact that both “citro” and etrog have a “t-r” sequence in the middle of them? Generally speaking, casual phonetic resemblances of this sort between words with similar meanings in such unrelated languages as Hebrew and English are — unless one is dealing with a modern borrowing — meaningless. In the case of fruits and vegetables, however, this is not always so. These have often originated in specific parts of the world, from which they have spread to other parts, and as they have done so their names have sometimes traveled with them, albeit not always in easily recognizable forms. Is the “t-r” of citrus and etrog a sign that this is so in this case?

It could be. The citron, like the other citrus fruits, most likely had its original home in China or in northern India, from where it spread to both Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago on the one hand and westward to Persia on the other. It was in Persia, reportedly, that it was first encountered by Europeans — namely, Alexander the Great’s troops; hence, its scientific name of citrus medica, which means not, as one might think, “the medical citrus,” but rather “the Mede” or Persian citrus.

What is clear is that the words “citron,” “citrus” and “orange” are all related. The trail starts in ancient India, where the orange was called naranga in Sanskrit. (An orange is still una naranja in Spanish, whereas in French une narange became une orange and carried over that way into English.) Most probably the word came from Tamil naran gai or natran gai (the Tamil retroflex “r” sounds like a “tr” to a Western ear), “fragrant fruit” — a word that was applied in the different Dravidian languages and dialects of India to more than one citrus fruit. In the Malayalam language of southern India today, for example, naranga means a lemon, while a citron is narthangai, a variation of natran gai.

In Persia, natran gai lost its first and last syllables and the citron became known as turunj. Still traveling westward, the fruit and its name then entered Turkish as turunç; Arabic as utrunj; Hebrew as etrog, and, carried by the Arabs, even reached as far as Spain, where it switched identities with other citrus fruits so that toronja means an orange in Catalan and a grapefruit in Spanish. The word “tangerine,” too, comes not from the city of Tangiers, as is commonly thought, but from an alternate form of toronja.

And yet if the Greeks or Romans brought the utrunj or etrog back to Europe, where it became the Greek kitron or the Latin citron, how — even if we accept as natural the dropping of the final consonant — did the word acquire its initial “k” sound? This question has no obvious answer. Perhaps the “etro” or “etron” tree became confused with the cedar tree, Greek kedros and Latin cedrus; in Italian, for instance, cedro came to mean both cedar and citrus. Or perhaps kitron and citron were independent words that had nothing to do with utrunj or etrog, and so we are indeed dealing with a phonetic coincidence.

It wouldn’t have been the only one. A curious fact is that the citron is known in Swedish as Suckatcitron and in Finnish as Sukaattisitruuna, while in Denmark, cakes and cookies with bits of candied citron peel in them are known as sukat. How on earth, one wonders, did these Scandinavians, of all people, get to name the citron and its products for the etrog of Sukkot?

The answer is that they didn’t. The Suckat of Suckatcitron, it turns out, derives from the Italian succo or sauce, apparently in a reference to the candied goo that citrons are made into. Way up north in reindeer country, it’s more than likely that the only citrons ever seen were not in a sukkah but in a marmalade. It’s easy to be fooled by sound-alike words.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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